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U.S. Running Low on Working Nuclear Weapons Design, Testing Specialists

The U.S. government within the next half decade expects to have lost to retirement all scientists who have done hands-on work in the blueprinting and trial explosions of nuclear weapons, Defense News reported on Saturday (see GSN, March 30).

The small cadre of remaining personnel with that experience encompasses anyone who "had a key hand in the design of a warhead that's in the existing stockpile and who was responsible for that particular design when it was tested back in the early 1990s," Thomas D'Agostino, head of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, said in March.

“Last year, it was in the 17 to 18 range, but I’ve got to believe it’s five fewer than that now,” said D'Agostino, whose agency is charged with overseeing the U.S. arsenal. “Five years from now, they will no longer be active employees of our laboratories.”

That loss of expertise is a significant issue for some observers who worry about the state of the nation's nuclear deterrent. Others say it should be expected given the nation's longstanding voluntary moratorium on nuclear-weapon trial explosions. It has been two decades since the United States last set off an underground blast.

“As long as it is the policy of the United States -- and it has been now for four successive administrations, two from each party -- not to test, that is inevitable. So the question becomes: What do you do about it?” asked former NNSA chief Linton Brooks.

Brooks served on an independent expert panel that recently declared that the United States has the capability to maintain a safe, secure and reliable nuclear arsenal without testing. The Obama administration has said it intends to push the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which upon entry into force would prohibit all member nations from such activities.

“If the administration has said they want to abandon testing, then certainly they have no interest in nurturing the knowledge base that would support it,” said Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

A key element to keeping the U.S. nuclear stockpile functioning without testing would be maintaining a "competent and capable" work force, according to the National Research Council report.

“At the laboratories, that means continuing to recruit the best people, but it also means giving them real projects that will develop their skills,” Brooks said. “Things like the attempt to design a Reliable Replacement Warhead -- whatever the merits of that as a policy decision -- it got new designers working with old designers on the process of how you design.”

The national laboratories that today conduct atomic arms science and production work must offer research on nonproliferation and other nuclear operations if they are to recruit top scientists, the experts said.

Turner concurred: “There needs to be a pursuit of knowledge that’s actually not tied to any particular weapons systems" (Kate Brannen, Defense News, April 14).

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